There is a particular Paul-Graham-ism that I keep noticing. He states that two things happen in the same way, but on a first superficial reading they are not the same at all, which causes a brief jarring sensation and forces you to reread the sentence, at which point you hopefully discover that the analogy is richer and more interesting than you might expect, which makes it worth reading the sentence a second time.

Here, I have collected some interesting or entertaining examples of things that, according to PG, happen in the “same way” or for the “same reason”. Think of it as a different dimension along which to analyze the Paul Graham corpus. (Like a concordance, a tool mostly used in pre-computer-era biblical studies but which I personally learned about while working on search engines.)


The Four Quadrants of Conformism

“You play a much more subdued game even on the ground that’s safe. In the past, the way the independent-minded protected themselves was to congregate in a handful of places - first in courts, and later in universities - where they could to some extent make their own rules. Places where people work with ideas tend to have customs protecting free inquiry, for the same reason wafer fabs have powerful air filters, or recording studios good sound insulation. For the last couple centuries at least, when the aggressively conventional-minded were on the rampage for whatever reason, universities were the safest places to be. That may not work this time though, due to the unfortunate fact that the latest wave of intolerance began in universities.”

How to Raise Money

“Meet such investors last, if at all. Doing breadth-first search weighted by expected value will save you from investors who never explicitly say no but merely drift away, because you’ll drift away from them at the same rate. It protects you from investors who flake in much the same way that a distributed algorithm protects you from processors that fail. If some investor isn’t returning your emails, or wants to have lots of meetings but isn’t progressing toward making you an offer, you automatically focus less on them. But you have to be disciplined about assigning probabilities.”

“It’s a mistake to have fixed plans in an undertaking as unpredictable as fundraising. So why do investors ask how much you plan to raise? For much the same reasons a salesperson in a store will ask “How much were you planning to spend?” if you walk in looking for a gift for a friend. You probably didn’t have a precise amount in mind; you just want to find something good, and if it’s inexpensive, so much the better. The salesperson asks you this not because you’re supposed to have a plan to spend a specific amount, but so they can show you only things that cost the most you’ll pay.”

“But what I usually tell founders is to stop fundraising when you start to get a lot of air in the straw. When you’re drinking through a straw, you can tell when you get to the end of the liquid because you start to get a lot of air in the straw. When your fundraising options run out, they usually run out in the same way. Don’t keep sucking on the straw if you’re just getting air. It’s not going to get better.”

Startup = Growth

“When I say startups are designed to grow fast, I mean it in two senses. Partly I mean designed in the sense of intended, because most startups fail. But I also mean startups are different by nature, in the same way a redwood seedling has a different destiny from a bean sprout. That difference is why there’s a distinct word, “startup,” for companies designed to grow fast. If all companies were essentially similar, but some through luck or the efforts of their founders ended up growing very fast, we wouldn’t need a separate word.”

Why Startup Hubs Work

“What makes the answer appear is letting your thoughts drift a bit—and thus drift off the wrong path you’d been pursuing last night and onto the right one adjacent to it. Chance meetings let your acquaintance drift in the same way taking a shower lets your thoughts drift. The critical thing in both cases is that they drift just the right amount. The meeting between Larry Page and Sergey Brin was a good example.”

Post-Medium Publishing

“Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics. Economically, the print media are in the business of marking up paper. We can all imagine an old-style editor getting a scoop and saying “this will sell a lot of papers!” Cross out that final S and you’re describing their business model.”

The List of N Things

“A real essay is a train of thought, and some trains of thought just peter out. That’s an alarming possibility when you have to give a talk in a few days. What if you run out of ideas? The compartmentalized structure of the list of n things protects the writer from his own stupidity in much the same way it protects the reader. If you run out of ideas on one point, no problem: it won’t kill the essay. You can take out the whole point if you need to, and the essay will still survive.”

Lies We Tell Kids

“The ironic thing is, this is also the main reason kids lie to adults. If you freak out when people tell you alarming things, they won’t tell you them. Teenagers don’t tell their parents what happened that night they were supposed to be staying at a friend’s house for the same reason parents don’t tell 5 year olds the truth about the Thanksgiving turkey. They’d freak if they knew.”

Be Good

“But I’ve been kicking ideas around long enough to know when I come across a powerful one. One way to guess how far an idea extends is to ask yourself at what point you’d bet against it. The thought of betting against benevolence is alarming in the same way as saying that something is technically impossible. You’re just asking to be made a fool of, because these are such powerful forces. For example, initially I thought maybe this principle only applied to Internet startups.”

You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss

“Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They’re like different animals. I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn’t the life they were designed for.”

“If you’re not allowed to implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: when you can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do. So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the same way a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful. Working for yourself doesn’t have to mean starting a startup, of course. But a programmer deciding between a regular job at a big company and their own startup is probably going to learn more doing the startup.”

How to Do What You Love

“Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn’t fun for most of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodgeball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn’t just do what you wanted.”

Web 2.0

“If it’s large enough, the lack of damping means the best writing online should surpass the best in print. And now that the web has evolved mechanisms for selecting good stuff, the web wins net. Selection beats damping, for the same reason market economies beat centrally planned ones. Even the startups are different this time around. They are to the startups of the Bubble what bloggers are to the print media.”

Inequality and Risk

“So eliminating economic inequality means eliminating startups. Economic inequality is not just a consequence of startups. It’s the engine that drives them, in the same way a fall of water drives a water mill. People start startups in the hope of becoming much richer than they were before. And if your society tries to prevent anyone from being much richer than anyone else, it will also prevent one person from being much richer at t2 than t1.”

The Submarine

“A hilarious article on the site of the PR Society of America gets to the heart of the matter: Bloggers are sensitive about becoming mouthpieces for other organizations and companies, which is the reason they began blogging in the first place. PR people fear bloggers for the same reason readers like them. And that means there may be a struggle ahead. As this new kind of writing draws readers away from traditional media, we should be prepared for whatever PR mutates into to compensate.”

Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas

“A hacker who has learned what to make, and not just how to make, is extraordinarily powerful. And not just at making money: look what a small group of volunteers has achieved with Firefox. Doing an Artix teaches you to make something people want in the same way that not drinking anything would teach you how much you depend on water. But it would be more convenient for all involved if the Summer Founders didn’t learn this on our dime—if they could skip the Artix phase and go right on to make something customers wanted. That, I think, is going to be the real experiment this summer.”

How to Start a Startup

“This technique doesn’t always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I’m told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances. It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say “I don’t know” of anyone I’ve met.”

Great Hackers

“It’s more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers. Of course some problems inherently have this character. And because of supply and demand, they pay especially well.”

What You Can’t Say

“Have you ever seen an old photo of yourself and been embarrassed at the way you looked? Did we actually dress like that? We did. And we had no idea how silly we looked. It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible, in the same way the movement of the earth is invisible to all of us riding on it. What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people.”

“Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good. If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward. In the first phase of the two-cycle innovation engine, you work furiously on some problem, inspired by your confidence that you’ll be able to solve it. In the second phase, you look at what you’ve done in the cold light of morning, and see all its flaws very clearly.”

The End

I wrote some code for scraping the RSS feed and generating this markdown; it’s here if you are curious. Thanks for reading! Any errors in these quotes, I blame on the tempting impossibility of parsing HTML with a regex.